This week I’m recommending something suitably scary for Halloween – a collection of old-fashioned but far from cosy ghost stories. When I was student at King’s College, Cambridge it was a privilege to eat in the splendid Gothick hall but there was one portrait hanging in the hall that I didn’t like. If I sat facing it, there was something about the intense gaze of the man in the painting which bothered me. If I sat with my back to it, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his fat white fingers might start reaching out for me. It was a portrait of the eminent scholar and former Provost of King’s, Montague Rhodes James, who is now more famous for the ghost stories he wrote in his spare time. James composed his first ghost story in around 1893 and his last in 1935, a year before he died. The collected `Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, which came out in 1931, is still in print and available on Kindle. There are also paperback editions of selected stories published by Wordsworth or Penguin Classics. Audio versions are well worth considering because James wrote most of his stories to be read aloud. The BBC recordings narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi are particularly good.

The thirty tales in `The Ghost Stories of M.R.James’ are set in England or Europe and mainly take place in the 19th or early 20th centuries, though they often go back into earlier periods to explain the hauntings. Collectively, they create a world in which old sins cast long shadows, evil is manifest in terrible forms, and the unwary may meet with `persons walking who should not be walking’. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories, by which I mean that he’s the one who frightens me the most. Film and television adaptations of his work rarely do it justice because they can’t resist adding complications to James’ relatively simple plots. `Night of the Demon’ is an effective horror film but it doesn’t bear much resemblance to the brief story it’s based on (Casting the Runes). Atmosphere is everything  In an M.R. James story, and that atmosphere is created by the slow building-up of convincing detail. He loved to create spurious documentation for his ghosts and demons in the form of old manuscripts, letters, diaries or court records. Reading these may require some patience but if you let yourself become absorbed in the dusty worlds they evoke, the shocks to come will be all the greater. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that many of the stories were written to amuse school boys, the plots often involve the murder of children. There are scenes in these stories as nightmarish, and far more haunting, than anything in a modern horror film.

You won’t find screaming blondes or dashing action heroes in James’ stories. His leading characters tend to be rational, emotionally repressed, middle-aged men. They are not the sort of people who believe in ghosts or demons and that makes their bizarre experiences seem all the more real. James’ greatest talent was for infusing ordinary places and objects with horror. Some of his stories are set in traditionally spooky old libraries, manor houses or churches but, in many of the best tales, terrors are encountered in places you would normally think of as dull and safe, such as a hotel room (Number 13), a commuter train (Casting the Runes), a country inn (Rats) or a rose arbor (The Rose Garden).  He turns woods (A Neighbour’s Landmark) and shingle beaches (A Warning to the Curious) Into landscapes of menace and in  James’ dark imagination a doll’s house (The Haunted Dolls’ House), the puppets in a Punch and Judy show (The Story of a Disappearence and an Appearence), an engraving of a house (The Mezzotint) and even a pair of binoculars (A View from a Hill) become disturbingly sinister objects. He’s the only author I know who can make the pattern on a pair of bedroom curtains terrifying (The Diary of Mr Poynter), while the grotesque behaviour of the linen sheets in `Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ could put you off sleeping alone in a room with two beds for the rest of your life.

James wrote of his own work that, `The ghost should be malevolent or odious: aimiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story’. His apparitions are varied and memorable, including the ghost of a drowned woman singing in a dreadful squalling voice, a feline creature who comes to `fetch away’ a clergyman with blood on his conscience, the toad-like guardian to an ancient treasure, and a `great roll of shabby white flannel’ with an earth-coloured face and dry eyes `as if there was two big spiders in the holes’. James’ ghosts are disturbingly solid. They are not just  ghastly visions, they can sound, smell and feel horrible as well, and are capable of strangling, suffocating or even poisoning their victims.

One of the collections published in James’ lifetime was called `A Warning to the Curious’. It’s a title that might apply to all his work. In a number of stories, scholars are cruelly punished for morbid curiosity, perhaps because they are seeking knowledge for their own selfish ends rather than to share it. In `Count Magnus’, the over-inquisitive Mr Wraxall becomes fascinated by the legend of a wicked Danish Count and the creature he brought back with him from the `Black Pilgrimage’. In spite of warnings about men who’ve had the flesh sucked off their faces, Wraxell lingers near the Count’s tomb while one by one the locks fall off Magnus’ coffin. Wraxell flees to England, but it is inevitable that his doom will catch up with him, just as it is inevitable that I will once again give in to the dark lure of this grim story and go on reading past the point of safety. Have a horrifying Halloween…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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